Bernat Voraviu is one of the most restless and hard-working people in wine. His countless endeavors and projects include becoming one of Spain’s most regarded sommeliers before reaching his 30s, curating an impressive wine list at Michelin-starred Alkimia restaurant, and reinvigorating the image of Mediterranean wines through Ithaca Wines, his import and distribution venture. But Bernat’s most ambitious project, Ex-Occidente, goes far beyond just wine as it intertwines the roots of ancient vineyards with the cultural roots of Bernat’s homeland in the foothills and chalky soils of the Catalan [Wild] West Pyrenees.
Western Pyrenees: The Place The World Forgot
“Understanding Catalunya is simple,” says Bernat pointing out the window of his car as we drive from the train station of Lleida Pirinneus to the village of Alfarras, where he and his girlfriend run “Brasserie Can Macho,” a local spot for authentic local cuisine. “To the East are the Mediterranean and Barcelona, where Penedes is. To the South, the famed Priorat. In the West and North, the Pyrenees.” The stunning rolling outcroppings of the foothills loom in the distance, directly ahead of us. The color of these hills is white. Bernat informs me it is chalk/ limestone, much akin to Champagne or Jerez.
The People of the West
As we drive through the villages, there is a sense that time has stopped flowing through their enchanted streets. “This is abandoned Catalunya, a place the world forgot; the “Far West,” [Kind of like] The Texas of Catalunya.” Bernat remarks somewhat jokingly. Although this desolated western Catalunyan region parallels the Wild West, the villages on our route are more reminiscent of Tangiers or Morocco. “People of Arabic descent first settled here,” Bernat explains. “That is why all the names are like this: Al-Farras, Al-Menar, Al-Terri, etc.”
Moreover, he continues, “the people [who still live here] are strong-willed and proud of their culture. But, unfortunately, there are no jobs for the young people, and they are all moving out to the city.” As a result, these culture-rich towns with a proud[but aging] populous became just waypoints for travelers heading to ski in the Pyrenees.
As we approach the first vineyard, Bernat pulls over and points to several large alcoves carved into the white hillside. “These are ancient 16th century [wine] cooperatives,” he says. “They [the villagers] put the grapes at the top [high Ph of limestone soils aids fermentation]. Then the juice drips down to the bottom.” Indeed, winemaking is deeply ingrained in the ancient culture of the Pyrenean people.
Inception of Ex Occidente and La Figuera
“Ex-Occidente,” or “From the West,” translated to English, was born out of restlessness and a desire to build community. “I just can’t sit still,” Bernat says as we arrive at his first vineyard. “During COVID lockdowns, my girlfriend and I came out to look at an abandoned vineyard. We saw this village in the distance, and she said we should have a wild game restaurant there. So we bought the village.” Bernat refers to Castel La Figuera, a near-abandoned [Pop: 1 currently] village that is the inspiration for the name and label of his first cuvée, “Roig de La Figuera.” Bernat plans to soon live in La Figuera, but his immediate focus is on the ancient, untamed vines before us.
The whole place permeates with a sense of untamed natural vastness, with chalky hillsides of limestone/pink gneiss, ancient residences [and wine cooperatives] carved into the hills, gnarled bushvines, and vast empty plains. But while terroir plays a role in Bernat’s project, it is the ancient provenance of the vines that form the heart of Ex-Occidente.
Rescuing Ancient Vines: The Essence of Ex Occidente
All the vines Bernat works with are multiple centuries old, low yielding, and planted as a “field blend” (white and red grapes interplanted) of ancient Pyrenean varieties.
“Usually, when you look at classic wine regions, if vine yields drop below 65 hl/ha, it’s time to re-plant”. However, they [the local grape growers] didn’t do that here, not because of any economic reason. It’s because their father had planted it, and their father’s father [and so on].” Cultural identity and steadfast resilience in the face of modernization have been crucial to preserving these incredible vines.
This point gets driven deeper as Bernat discusses one of his growers, an 80-year-old man tending a small 15-hectare vineyard in a middle of a grassy field. Despite the acquisition of multiple areas all around him for what would likely have been commercial purposes, the man was steadfast and refused to sell, as it was part of his heritage. Indeed, he had no interest in money, as shown by the fact that he didn’t even want to charge Bernat for the grapes. Finally, after many arguments, Bernat opted to pay his granddaughter, who put it away into a bank account for him.
“The man will die tomorrow if someone ripped out this vineyard today.” Bernat declares. While dramatic, I believe this point is far from exaggerated.
The first step in producing the “Roig de La Figuera” has been reviving the new vines, a laborious and time-intensive project. The first vineyard we visited, the one in the shadow of La Figuera tower, was abandoned and then reclaimed by the owner of a nearby apple orchard. Unfortunately, the owner attempted to irrigate, which shocked the old vines since the vines had always been dry-farmed.
“If I ever irrigate a vineyard, I quit,” Bernat says adamantly. While irrigation may work for other more commercial regions with younger vines, the locals here have avoided it for centuries.
There is no playbook, no guidelines when it comes to these vines, these varieties. In this climate, which can be described as arid and continental, each day presents new challenges and opportunities in the face of the unknown.
“The Vineyard shows us the way,” Bernat says ponderously.
Rejuvenation and Polyculture
Simply speaking, the mission is to rejuvenate the vineyard and rebuild the natural soil ecosphere in which these vines thrived by tilling the land, maintaining the best shoots, and ensuring that the “bushvines” (or “goblet-trained” vines) are properly positioned to allow the fruit to ripen. Pruning bush vines is a fascinating and complex process that Bernat learned not by reading literature but by working with local growers.
Another concept important to the farmers of the Pyrenees, and a tradition Bernat intends to cultivate, is polyculture, planting a range of agricultural products, not just wine grapes, in a vineyard. For example, in the vineyard managed by an 80-year-old native man (mentioned previously), there are 500-year-old olive trees between every couple of vines. Though this concept again goes against modern viticulture, it cements the identity of this region as a cultural farming land, not just for vines.
“It [the winemaking] is not about imitating but adapting. Especially with co-planted vineyards..” Bernat admits.
The approach to winemaking is minimal, allowing the diversity of the varieties in the blend to shine. The grapes are harvested together and fermented in stainless steel. The grapes see 32 days of maceration on skins; then they are racked off by gravity (without mechanical pumps) into 1,000-liter Chestnut foudre to complete the aging. Sulfur is kept to an absolute minimum but not entirely shunned. While this process seems simple, it is not set in stone. Bernat is a dynamic winemaker, unafraid of exploring and adjusting techniques.
“I want to make the best wine with what I have,” Bernat says as we taste the 2021 Roig de la Figuera. “I want my wines to have Identity, to be from here.” While it is often simplest to make connections between unknown wines and more familiar wines- say a Xinomavro and Nebbiolo- Bernat’s wines are truly unique. They are beautifully complex, showing the elegance of fruit/floral notes and an immense density and grip on the palate. The wine is layered due to the diversity of grapes grown in the vineyards, but no layer is out of focus; nothing is jarring or sticking out. Instead, it’s a complete wine, a true enigma that improves with every sip.
Bernat vs. The Spanish [Wine] Bureaucracy
Even more impressive about Bernat is that he established the winery without outside help, especially from the government. Though his vines are technically in the “Costers del Segre” DO, he eschews the DO requirements to grow and make “whatever the f*ck I want.” And labels it as simply “Vi Negre de La Noguerra” and avoids all the bureaucratical bullsh*t.
“The problem [with European PDO laws],” Bernat says, “is that there are singular laws for a huge diversity of countries, landscapes, and cultures. For some, these laws are good; for others, not so good.”
These laws, such as the “vine pull scheme,” have hit the Western Pyrenees hard in the past and have stifled what could have been a truly unique and dynamic region. Now, the DO laws continue to impact the diversity and polyculture of the region.
“The DO does not permit the grapes I grow [the historic grapes of Noguerra]. But if I was to plant Riesling [a grape native to Germany, and one that may have difficulty in a dry, arid environment], I can put it [Costers del Segre DO] on the label.”
It is a stark reminder that legal policies have a detrimental effect in regions -even incredibly ancient – still finding their feet.
As we head back towards Alfarras before our trip back to Barcelona, I watch as Bernat harkens back to his youth while driving between the rocks. The day was much about going to the past, but what is the future for the “Forgotten West”? What’s next for its charming villages and its proud people?
“We either make value for this place, repopulate it, or become wind farms for the big cities,” Bernat admits. So there is still much work to do in the vineyard and the surrounding countryside. Nevertheless, Ex-Occidente displays the incredible quality and potential of winemaking in the region. Roig de la Figuera has already been pre-ordered by some of Spain’s best restaurants and will soon hit the market in Germany and the US. In addition, Bernat’s Restaurant, Can Macho, has helped provide jobs and sustenance to locals. But there is more on the horizon.
Looking Towards the Future
Bernat is looking to expand to even more ideal areas in the vineyard, document the diverse varieties, and replant using massale selection to improve quality. One such project is to rediscover and replant an indigenous pink-skinned variety, “Trobat Negre” [translated, somewhat ironically, to “found black” from Catalan], going back to the 18th century.
For Castel de la Figuera, Bernat is in talks with architects to bring new life to the ancient village. Who knows, maybe soon there will be a Wild Game restaurant there. Bernat is also trying to promote polyculture by inviting other farmers, growers, and herders to settle the lands and tend them with love and care as he has. All this and much more are on the horizon for Bernat’s ambitious project. Yet what motivates Bernat?
“We are doing this for our children. It is not for us but for the next generation. We may not even see the final results.”
At this moment, it is hard not to get sentimental. In Bernat, a sense of self-sacrifice, and tireless dedication to his community, his childhood home, going beyond the vine.
Each bottle of Roig de la Figuera, with its manually-printed label- encapsulates that sense, that unique place that the world forgot, and I hope we will all soon experience it as I have, for it is something incredible.
The wines of Ex-Occidente will be coming to the US in the Summer of 2023. With only 1500 bottles of 2021 Roig de La Figuera made, the quantities are extremely limited.
To be the first to access Bernat’s wine [ in the US ] sign up at Thatcher’s Imports to be notified as soon as the wine hits the warehouse.